A federal judge ruled yesterday (February 1) that Florida’s practice of preventing formerly incarcerated people from voting is unconstitutional.
Last April, a group of nine formerly incarcerated people filed suit against Governor Rick Scott, members of the Executive Clemency Board, members of the Florida Commission on Offender Review, Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner and secretary of the Department of Corrections Julie Jones. The suit argues that the state is violating their rights under the First and Fourteenth Amendments.
In his 43-page ruling in James Michael Hand v. Governor Rick Scott and State of Florida, U.S. District Judge Mark Walker agreed. He wrote:
In Florida, elected, partisan officials have extraordinary authority to grant or withhold the right to vote from hundreds of thousands of people without any constraints, guidelines or standards. The question now is whether such a system passes constitutional muster. It does not.
Per the ruling, Florida residents who are convicted of felonies are automatically disenfranchised. They can individually petition the Executive Clemency Board to regain their rights, but they are only granted if the governor and two members of the board agree to let them vote. While states are granted this right via the Fourteenth Amendment, the judge makes it clear that the disenfranchisement cannot legally be driven by “racial animus”:
A person convicted of a crime may have long ago exited the prison cell and completed probation. Her voting rights, however, remain locked in a dark crypt. Only the state has the key—but the state has swallowed it. Only when the state has digested and passed that key in the unforeseeable future—maybe in five years, maybe in 50—along with the possibility of some virus-laden stew of viewpoint discrimination and partisan, religious or racial bias, does the state in an “act of mercy,” unlock the former felon’s voting rights from its hiding place.
Former felons’ pathway back to full citizenship—one in which these members of Florida’s communities have a voice in the selection of their government—cannot be tainted by even the slightest stench of viewpoint discrimination. A state may disenfranchise convicted felons. A particularly punitive state might even disenfranchise convicted felons permanently. But once a state provides for restoration, its process cannot offend the Constitution.
Per The Washington Post, Walker did not rule on how the breach should be remedied. He will make that decision after holding hearings in mid-February.